Alex Vernon


On his book On Tarzan

Cover Interview of August 09, 2009

In a nutshell

On Tarzan is the only book-length study of this pop culture icon.  Historically, the book moves from the momentum of the nineteenth century and into the twenty-first.  It aspires to account for the life and death of Tarzan in the collective imagination across that period.

On Tarzan also explores a particular mode of literary and cultural scholarship.  I would revise the term “personal criticism,” vogue in the 1990s, to “familiar criticism,” a distinction analogous to the connoted difference between the personal essay and the familiar essay.  It renders the issue one of voice and style rather than “personal” content.  In terms of the content, this mode encourages playful engagement that can openly entertain subjective responses, take serious the silly, and refuse to plod .

Thus a passage on John Dereks’ 1981 film Tarzan, the Ape Man ends with the line: “But the spectacle of the spectacle is exactly the point of the film’s metaphorical critique of Hollywood culture specifically and modern U.S. media culture more generally.”  Followed with a one-sentence paragraph: “Perhaps I give this film too much credit.”

(Cultural interpretation is always a risky venture, and trafficking in the ridiculous is a staple of popular culture studies, as Don DeLillo famously lampooned in White Noise.)

On Tarzan wants to see if the pursuit of dilettantism and trivia can be intellectually fruitful.  Each chapter attempts to present an array of curiosities and observations without sacrificing narrative momentum or authority.  The book seeks the pleasure in tangents.